Firewatch Post-Game Thoughts
Sometimes you finish a game, and you feel like you just made new friends.
Is that just me? Is my introversion showing?
Regardless, personal connection is the overwhelming feeling I got from finishing Firewatch.
Firewatch is a beautiful game/”walking simulator” which marks the debut of San Francisco-based developer Campo Santo.
I use the term “beautiful,” but that’s kind of unfair to it. It implies the game only displays surface aesthetics, and that isn’t the case (though it has those, too). Actually, the game is deep enough emotionally that it starts to get ugly. It’s unclean and complicated and uncomfortably real. It indirectly poses questions there are no good answers to, but it never really forces the choice on you.
Because let’s face it, when you have problems in the real world, how often do you get a simple “point of no return” choice that allows you to simply choose what your next phase in life will be? It’s almost never that obvious or that simple. Our problems are complex; they sit with you and you stew over them for days, weeks, years. And in many cases, you are powerless to improve the situation, you just have to decide how to make the best of it.
This is what Firewatch is about: people growing older and dealing with baggage so complex that it makes them feel guilty to even consider it baggage. You know, those typical video game themes.
As I write this mere days from what is likely to be a jet-lagged, unceremonious Opening Day to my 30s, this kind of game appeals to me in a strange way. Not because I have the same type of problems as the protagonist, but because thousands of people do, and anyone else could, and it’s scary to think of what that would mean to a happily married couple.
Since I currently comprise half of one such couple, this hits home for me.
This is a game that is actually thematically for adults, more so than most M-rated games. A couple of lines edited for profanity (and one edited drawing of the protagonist) would easily knock it back to a T (or even an E-10?) pretty quickly. And although basically all the characters in the game are 10 years older than me, I relate to them.
This is the part where I warn you about spoilers, because it’s impossible to truly analyze this game without talking about what it does and doesn’t do over the course of the 3-5 hour story. So you don’t accidentally read the next line, I’ll add a few of the game’s gorgeous environments for you to ogle. Yes, the game really looks this good, and yes, it’s all in-engine.
Okay, that was nice. Now let’s really talk about Firewatch.
Henry, your protagonist, is married. He is happily married, his wife is a college professor, they have a dog together, they love drinking beers on the porch. They are basically depicted to have an ideal relationship together.
Then Julia starts acting strange. You find out she has early-onset dementia, it’s advanced, and it’s irreversible. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s at age 41, and the more time goes on, the less she will recognize anything around her, including Henry.
Julia gets worse, and her family comes from Melbourne, Australia to take her home and care for her.
This is all given to you as a text-based prologue. The game really opens when Henry, looking for a way to escape everything else going on in his life, takes a job as a firewatch. His job is to live in a watch tower in the middle of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, alone, and radio to his supervisor when he sees signs of smoke.
This is probably a good time to mention the fact that the game takes place in 1989, a time when technology allowed that sort of position to exist.
Upon arriving at the tower, Henry contacts Delilah, his sarcastic-but-compassionate supervisor, who will end up becoming his only point of contact for the next three months. She starts their relationship with a stunningly straightforward and bewildering question: “So, what’s wrong with you?”
That kicks off one of the game’s major selling points. The dialogue between these two characters makes the entire game. There are only four other characters with voices in the entire game, and none of them appear for more than one scene.
With that being the case, if this were a game with mediocre writing or voice acting, it wouldn’t even be worth discussing. Because it falls into the “walking simulator” genre in which gameplay basically consists of “go to the place so the story can happen,” the make-or-break factor is how good that story is.
We’ll get to the story content in a minute. Right now, we’re going to talk about voice acting. We’ll start with this as a summary:
Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in Mad Men) as Henry and Cissy Jones (Joyce Price in Life is Strange) as Delilah put on an absolute master class of voice acting in this game, carrying characters who are largely faceless (you only see sketch drawings of Henry’s face, and you never see Delilah at all) to become some of the most lifelike and believable characters ever to appear in video game.
Both characters are easy to relate to in their given circumstances. Henry is lonely, guilt-ridden, and unsure of himself. Delilah is more comfortable in her position and comes off as the veteran who has gained a certain ruggedness that comes with living in the middle of a national park for years. Yet both characters have more depth than you can even experience in a single playthrough.
Delilah, having callously (but mostly unintentionally) picked at Henry’s emotional wounds on the first night, apologizes the following afternoon and admits to being drunk at the time. The thought in my mind is something along the lines of “we’ve all been there.” You know, when you breach an uncomfortable subject in the middle of a conversation, and don’t realize it was uncomfortable until you think about it six hours later, at which point you feel terrible about it?
Yeah, it’s that situation. Henry already feels like he’s doing something wrong by leaving behind his mentally-ill wife to give himself an emotional break. And Delilah’s first words to him prod that exact wound, without even knowing it.
Despite this, the relationship between the two of them eventually grows close and endearing. They lend sympathetic ears to one another as they air their dirty laundry and emotional issues to one another. They come to know each others’ relationship histories, humor quirks, and pet peeves. Delilah is Henry’s only real human contact out in the wilderness, and she tells him directly that she enjoys his conversation more than that of the other lookouts. There is undeniable chemistry in that, “We poke fun at each other because we understand each other” kind of way.
And with that chemistry, there is conflict. Both Henry and Delilah are damaged and flawed in their own ways, and it sounds like having any sort of romantic relationship might be the last thing either of them need, either emotionally or morally (Henry is still married, after all, as his ever-present wedding ring shows you at regular intervals). Regardless, that choice is yours – the option is there to pursue.
Of course, the result you get out of that pursuit may not be the one you wanted. There are a number of situations in which telling Delilah what you want doesn’t mean she’ll do it. She displays agency beyond just being a vehicle for your decisions.
Much in the same way Firewatch is realistic in its depiction of real-life problems and complicated people, it is also realistic in that it makes you believe you have agency where you don’t, as if waving a sign in front of your face saying, “Sometimes life doesn’t go how you want.”
This isn’t something you get a lot of in video games, not this artfully. You’re not a dashing young hero out to save the world or make everything better. You’re a middle-aged man with real emotional baggage.
You get winded climbing a relatively small rock face. Teenage girls skinny-dipping in a nearby lake call you a creepy old pervert from a safe distance. It’s made painfully clear you’re not a particularly skilled fighter. You’re not even capable of fixing your own problems, much less that of others – the whole game’s premise is that you’re running from them.
This is Henry – your protagonist, the one you’re supposed to project on. Firewatch isn’t a story about Henry completely overcoming his issues and coming to terms with the state of his life. He had problems when he came to Shoshone, and they will remain problems when he leaves.
In many ways, Firewatch is just about flawed people and their imperfections, and how those play out in different situations. It doesn’t sound that compelling, and it wouldn’t be if the voice acting and writing didn’t sell it so hard.
Of course, there is an actual plot to the game beyond just “people dealing with issues.” During Henry’s first full day as a lookout, he needs to go tell off a couple of girls who are setting off fireworks in the forest during the peak of fire season. On the way back, he spots a mysterious figure watching him, and upon his return, he finds that his watch tower has been vandalized.
This starts a series of questions about who is trying to mess with Henry (and Delilah, by extension), and things get so strange, with so many loose ends and so few answers, it eventually calls into question the actual nature of Firewatch’s plot.
It is completely unclear for most of the game what kind of direction the plot is going to take. Is something supernatural going on? Is the game going to go survival horror? Is it a whodunit? Is there a government conspiracy involved? Is it a psychological thriller with Henry as the “unreliable narrator?”
All of these options are teased and suggested at some point or another, and they are all compelling possibilities, especially that last one. Henry openly questions his mental state more than once, and given what he’s going through, it’s easy to entertain that option. Furthermore, you never once see Delilah, which makes it easy to believe Henry may have simply made her up in his head, and there is nobody on the other end of that walkie-talkie.
But it turns out it’s none of these things, and all of those hints and suggestions were little more than red herrings. Nobody is going crazy, there is no conspiracy, and there is no serial murderer loose in the woods. Ultimately, the big reveal of the story is that there is simply another scared man in the woods running away from real life, and he takes his paranoia way more seriously than either Henry or Delilah.
I admit to feeling a bit let down that the climax of the story was so flat. There is no real closure. You find out what happened, but don’t confront the man responsible for your strife directly. You just look through his things until you solve a couple of the lingering mysteries of the past few days, and then you leave.
But I was let down largely because I was expecting a video game story. Video game stories are about giving you a satisfying payoff for your actions up to that point.
This isn’t that. This is a story about humans, and as such the main plot’s mystery and drama only exists to tug on more of the main characters’ vulnerabilities. It isn’t about delivering justice. When you find out who was screwing you over, you don’t get to sock him in the face or send him to prison. Sometimes you just have to walk away and stew over it.
And that’s what Henry does, but not before having one final conversation with Delilah. She asks you what you’re going to do next. None of the answers you have to give are “happily ever after” scenarios. In fact, they’re not even about you. Delilah says she’ll pick for you, if you pick for her. Only one of the options even involves you at all.
Henry is either going to go back to his mentally-ill wife out of guilt – a situation that makes him lonely and miserable and upset, or he is going to bail on his wife – possibly in favor of a new woman he met via walkie-talkie in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. There’s no guarantee that will make him any happier.
What a hero.
While my feelings on the situation fell mostly on the side of “no, take care of your wife, you selfish jerk,” I found it very easy to see the other side of it by the end, and by extension, it made me think about how these kinds of choices get morally clouded in reality.
It’s easy to make an altruistic choice in a video game. Just take the option that is obviously the most selfless, fight through a tiny difficulty spike, and sit back while the game gives you a little gold star and makes you feel like a good person for being such a hero.
Real altruism often requires sacrificing some of your own personal happiness for the good of another. You’re not sacrificing much of anything to do the hero thing in games most of the time, but the sacrifice is made rather overt in Henry’s situation… and honestly, I didn’t really want either option for him. Nothing feels heroic for Henry.
I liked Henry. I liked Delilah. Just like with actual real-life friends, I didn’t like seeing them unhappy, but was largely unable to really help them. Their situations have no “right” answer, and the game isn’t trying to give you one.
That’s the best aspect of Firewatch. Once you gain an appreciation for the characters and what they’re going through, and you come to understand that the game isn’t a flight of fancy with outlandish plot twists, it boils down to just helping your friends cope with their problems.
Not fixing, not solving, not directing. Just coping the best you can with the time you have.
It is truly rare to see such a simple, melancholic story and core concept turned into such a deeply emotional ride. But that’s what Firewatch does: it presents an experience that is actually “mature,” not just M-rated.
If you don’t get it now, just wait until you’re 30.